We are 24 hours from puck drop for meaningful hockey. The Rangers have a tall order, looking to beat the Carolina Hurricanes in a short series. The Rangers have a big edge in net, but the Canes have a big edge on the blue line and a slight edge up front. But the Rangers won’t win on goaltending. The Rangers will only win if a bunch of different factors all play out in their favor.
The Rangers will win if the goaltending is great
This is the easy one. Great goaltending wins in the playoffs. Igor Shesterkin is the best goalie in this series. It goes beyond his great numbers in his limited time in the NHL. He’s had stellar numbers across multiple leagues, including the KHL. He looks calm and collected in net. The movements are smooth. He’s in position, and he gets hit in the chest a lot with shots.
The Rangers also have one of the best of all time as his backup. But if Henrik Lundqvist sees playing time, the Rangers are in a bad spot. That has nothing to do with Lundqvist. If he plays, it likely means that Shesterkin didn’t have it, and the Rangers are already behind in Game 1, or worse, already lost Game 1.
The Rangers will win if the top-six gets going
Another easy one – the Rangers will win if their great top-six continues to score. If you don’t score, you can’t win. It doesn’t matter how good the goaltending is. The Rangers averaged over three goals a game in the regular season, mostly from that top-six. That scoring will need to continue.
The x-factor here is that third line. Kaapo Kakko looked resurgent and really clicked with Filip Chytil. If that line can get hot, then the Rangers can weather the storm if the top-six can’t get going. But that isn’t sustainable. In the playoffs, your best players need to perform. The top-six will need to score.
The Rangers will win if they forecheck
The biggest issue the Rangers had in the early season was that they weren’t forechecking consistently. Beyond the obvious pressure on the opposition’s breakout, the aggressive Rangers forecheck moves the skaters up the ice a bit. When it’s working properly, the Rangers have at least three skaters at or below the blue line. This pressures the breakout, but also pressures the neutral zone and creates better gap control through the neutral zone.
The key here will be getting F1 and F2 in deep. That will leave F3 and D1 to read the play and force a turnover in the offensive zone. The puck moving defensemen on Carolina can cause issues, but the forwards can be exploited. If the turnover isn’t there, D1 can drop back from the blue line and defend the rush. This leaves D1 and D2 starting to back up at the red line, instead of the defensive blue line. Better gap control leads to less controlled entries.
The Rangers will win if they out-coach the Hurricanes
The last one is obvious, but only because these teams have had months to study each other. Carolina is a dump and chase team, something that actually works in the Rangers’ favor. The Rangers can counter this with essentially four puck movers –the three right defensemen and Shesterkin– to get the breakout going quickly before the oncoming pressure.
Carolina will likely look to gain controlled zone entries to exploit the LD weaknesses and the Rangers’ habit of giving up the blue line by design. If that starts to happen, better reads from F1 on the back check will be critical. Coaching plays a significant role here in identifying the change in strategy. The players then need to execute.
It’s not just one of these
The Rangers will not win if only one of the above comes to fruition. At the very least, the Rangers will only win if they get the goaltending AND they get the top-six scoring. Luck –in the form of SH% and SV%– is magnified in the playoffs. A hot goalie or hot shooting, or both, can propel a team from bottom seed to a run for the Stanley Cup.
The best players need to deliver. That’s the top-six, the right defense, and the goaltending. The Rangers will only win if all of that is rolling.